Public Affairs Crisis Management  
In A Multi-Service Atmosphere  


     The very nature of the military services’ role in training and preparing for war as it would indeed conduct war avails itself to the minimal of opportunities for mishap. "Train as you fight" often involves the integration of forces from sister services battling or flying alongside one another over foreign soil. The planning required to conduct this training is equally as crucial should a mishap turn into a crisis. Public affairs response to a crisis in a multi-service environment overseas brings into perspective considerably more interests than those typically involved in a service-unique incident. 
While the disaster in the case study led to an uproar across Italy (Public Affairs After Action Report, 1998), it was the aspect of communication response that fueled most criticism by the media and public.  E. W. Brody (1991) makes a clear distinction between disasters and crises. He explains that "a disaster is an unfortunate sudden and unexpected event. Disasters occur through carelessness, negligence, or bad judgment. Disasters can create crises, but crises and disasters are not identical" (p. 175). Brody further defines crises as a "decisive turning point in a condition or state of affairs. Most important from a communication standpoint, crises are not disasters. Disaster communication and crisis communication differ because crises develop more slowly than disasters and in relatively predictable fashion. Crises occur where issues are neglected or otherwise mishandled. Crises produced by disasters should not create surprises. Disasters may be unforeseen and unpredictable, but resulting crises almost always can be anticipated" (Brody, 1991, pp. 175-176). Steven Fink concurs that crises can be characterized as prodromal, or forewarning, of events that may escalate in intensity (Guth, 1995).  
     Opposing research, however, describes the line between an incident and a crisis as ambiguous at best.  Definitions of a crisis also include characterizations of "surprise, high threat to important values, and a short decision time," and "a major, unpredictable event that has potentially negative results" (Guth, 1995, p. 124). Regardless, most research literature views "a crisis as threatening the legitimacy of an industry, reversing the strategic mission of an organization and disturbing the way people see the world and themselves" (Guth, 1995, p. 124). For the purpose of this paper, the fact that a crisis immediately ensues an incident or emergency is adopted and therefore requires extensive planning prior to the occurrence of any incident. 
     This proved to be the case with the EA-6B accident in Italy. The nearest Air Force public affairs office at Aviano initially responded with very few details to the unforeseen accident of the aircraft striking the support cables of the gondola. In an age where communication can be instantaneous the public affairs office was in an awkward situation; they were forced to remain silent to reports and queries while national and international press were reporting details they could not confirm. The chain of events—to include not immediately accepting responsibility and expressing remorse; the release of ambiguous information; and messages lost through interpretation—in the days immediately following the incident developed into the communication response crisis for the Marines and Air Force base involved. The absence of definitive communication forms the nucleus of the crisis and is the nature of the problem in that there is lack of clear guidance and sufficient knowledge of sister service operations in order to properly communicate messages that are clear, accurate and with one voice. 
     The dependent variable, the level of success during multi-service crisis situations, is affected to a great extent by the chain of events listed above. Lukaszewski (1997) lists responsiveness as a strategic communication standard. He bases this standard on the expectations of those affected. "The organization interested in having an effective, consistent, positive ongoing relationship with its constituencies must work within the framework of those constituencies’ expectations" (Lukaszewski, 1997, p. 8). Among his four communications priorities are those directly affected, employees, those indirectly affected, and the news media. He sets "the health, welfare, and safety of the people most directly affected, our employees, and the protection, restoration, and recovery of company operations" (Lukaszewski, 1997, p. 8) as the organization’s first obligation and part of a standard-setting fundamental communication principle. 
     The responding public affairs office from Aviano had little contact with Marine PA’s from the unit temporarily deployed to its base.  Since the Marines sent no full-time PA’s, intimate relationships were not formed.  The Air Force was able to speak in general terms about what the Marines were doing there but had little else to offer the news media. The initial chain of command for releasing follow-up information and coordinating media queries was not clearly outlined until three days after the accident, according to the Public Affairs After Action Report (1998). The services’ primary obligation, according to Lukaszewski, should have been to the families of the victims. That message of sympathy did not come until a press conference by Marine Brigadier General Guy Vanderlinden two days after the incident and well into the conception of the crisis response. 
     Although the respective services’ instructions and regulations provide guidance on the release of information, the early actions by the responding public affairs office may best be viewed as differentiation, according to Sellnow and Ulmer (1995). Differentiation involves "those strategies which serve the purpose of separating some fact, sentiment, object, or relationship from some larger context within which the audience presently views the attribute" (p. 139). In the case of the Marine incident in Italy, the larger context involved intercultural sensitivities by a public that viewed the U.S. government as separating itself from the fact that it was indeed responsible. This was most evident at the press conference by General Vanderlinden when a question by the media involved the flight path and route of the Marine EA-6B. The response affirming that the pilot was over the correct route contradicted statements by the Italian Minister of Defense and created a national furor in the country, according to a Public Affairs After Action Report (1998). 
     This hurt the credibility of the investigation as well as that of the forces operating out of Italy. The releasing officials failed to "consider the impact that information availability will have on (the) mission, and prepare to address issues openly, honestly, and in a timely manner. Once information is available, attempting to deny it or failing to acknowledge it will destroy … credibility" (Field Manual 46-1, 1997, p. 18). Brody agrees that a "communicator’s greatest asset in any effort—program, campaign, special event or crisis response—is organizational credibility. With credibility, all things are possible. Without credibility, little can be accomplished. Credibility is a commodity gained over time and at great expense in effort and consistency. Credibility is easily lost and, once lost, is doubly difficult to regain" (1991, pp. 181-182). 
     With the loss of credibility and the absence of a clear response plan, the services fell back on what Gonzalez-Herrero and Pratt (1995) refer to as the third step in their four-phase model of the crisis management process—the crisis. "At this point, the company might have lost all proactive initiatives. Should a crisis-response plan not exist or should the situation have been mishandled, the organization’s response will have to be limited to reacting to the event and to using contingency measures that may reduce any damage" (Gonzalez-Herrero & Pratt, 1995, p. 27).  The model’s steps include issues management, planning-prevention, the crisis, and the post-crisis. Foremost in the model are issues management and planning-prevention, both absent in existing joint plans for a crisis and in the case study; establishing that half the work involved in managing a crises should be accomplished before a crisis occurs.  
     During the issues management stage, organizations must look for trends or issues that may affect them in the future, collect data on the issues and evaluate them, and develop a strategy of communications to prevent a crisis or redirect its course. (Gonzalez-Herrero & Pratt, 1995). This stage is then followed by planning-prevention, which incorporates information, warning, and internal communications systems. "Planning is the bedrock of crisis management. The idea at this point is to show that, when an issue is perceived to have passed the limits of issues management, when it is recognized that a crisis is imminent, or when an issue might change quickly in intensity, the organization should use its information-gathering and warning systems to monitor it carefully. At the same time, the company should brace itself for an imminent crisis, just in case one hits" (Gonzalez-Herrero & Pratt, 1995, p. 26). 
     Goldman and Traverso (1997) concur that "crisis management planning should be a part of any business strategy. The question ‘Where are we vulnerable and what can happen to us?’ can identify deficiencies and lead to strategic thinking and creative ways of doing business" (p. 45). Dougherty (1992) claims that "of key importance before developing a crisis communications plan is first understanding your organization. Because, unless you truly understand your organization, you won’t know whom you’ll need to address in a crisis, what message you will want to communicate, nor will you be able to assess the impact of a crisis on your organization" (p. 3). The Aviano public affairs office’s lack of intimacy with the Marine operations contributed to the deployed unit’s place in the base organizational structure as unclear. Dougherty’s emphasis is also illustrated in the fact that it took three days to establish a public affairs chain of command and mixed messages had already adversely impacted the crisis. 
     Three well-established communication theories explains the type of  communication that needs to take place during a public affairs crisis in a multi-service environment. The first is the structural-functional systems theory (Dunlop, 1958) which applies to organizational communication using chains of command and information networks.  Anxiety/uncertainty management theory (Gudykunst, 1995) applies to intercultural communication, addressing specifically how reducing anxiety and uncertainty opens communication channels across groups and facilitates understanding.  Lastly, the diffusion of innovation theory (Rogers, 1983) is used to show how information and ideas are disseminated through communication channels and how, when used in planning, the application of the theory can spread desired messages prior to crisis.  
     The structural-functional systems theory explains how organizational communication takes place based upon Dunlop's (1958) analysis.  Dunlop referred to the structure of a functioning system as being comprised of certain actors, certain contexts, an ideology that binds the system together and a body of rules created to govern the actors. Actors in a system are the hierarchy of managers and their representatives in supervision, the hierarchy of workers, and any spokesmen and specialized governmental agencies (Dunlop, 1958).  The contexts of a system are the technological characteristics of the organization, monetary factors, and the distribution of power between a system and society.  The ideology of a stable system would involve the views held within the organization that are similar and working toward a common goal.  The body of rules refers consequences of achieving the expected performance and the result of failure to achieve that of which was expected. 
     Dependent upon the scope of discussion, Dunlop (1958) described a system to be used on occasion to refer to a subsystem of a larger system.  A system can be broken up into smaller units called subsystems or combined with other systems to form larger suprasystems (Infante, Rancer, & Womack, 1997).  When "… suprasystems and subsystems are interdependent [that] leads to the systems property called nunsummativity.  The whole system is more than the sum of the contributions of each individual part" (p. 91). 
The structural-functional theory is important to public affairs plans because it identifies information flow in organizations as "networks" made up of members and "links".  Information in organizations flow in patterns called networks (Infante et al.,1997).  The micronetwork links individuals in the group.  The network along which messages are transmitted between groups in the organization is the macronetwork.  The macronetwork forms the organization's overall communication structure.  Networks consist of members and links (communication ties) between members.  The actors, contexts, ideology, and rules can influence the information flow within the organization.  A change in one of these influential factors can have an effect upon the other(s).  
     The anxiety/uncertainty management theory (AUM) developed by Gudykunst in 1995 is applied to intercultural communication.  This theory suggests that a culture tells us which type of methods of understanding allow us to predict others' behavior, therefore reducing uncertainty in communication across cultures. AUM is important to public affairs plans because it provides guidelines in which certain perceptions and reactions of a host country populous can be predicted in response to certain comments. When our anxiety or uncertainty is too high, communication suffers. 
Managing uncertainty and anxiety, therefore, is a central process affecting our communication with strangers (Gudykunst, 1995).  Strangers, as described by Gudykunst, are members of a different group, organization, culture, or country.  A stranger possesses the characteristics of that group, organization, culture or country and can be near or far in distance when communicating. 
     In other words, strangers represent both the idea of nearness in that they are physically close and the idea of remoteness in that they have different values and ways of doing things.  Strangers are physically present and participate in a situation and, at the same time, are outside the situation because they are members of different groups (Gudykunst, 1995). 
     Gudykunst (1995) describes two types of uncertainty: predictive and explanatory.  Predictive uncertainty is the uncertainty involved in predicting a stranger's behavioral pattern.  Explanatory uncertainty is the uncertainty involved in predicting a stranger’s reaction to certain types of information.  Both types of uncertainty are based upon a stranger’s attitudes, feelings, beliefs, values, and behavior. Gudykunst also believes that emotional factors must be considered.  He considers anxiety to be the emotional equivalent of cognitive uncertainty (Infante et al., 1997) and must be addressed along with uncertainty to have positive results. 
     The diffusion of innovation theory developed by Rogers in 1983 is applied to communication channels and normally associated with mass communication.  Research dealing with diffusion examines how new ideas are spread among groups of people.  This theory centers on the ability of new information to be accepted following dissemination via a variety of channels. Opinion leaders, change agents and gatekeepers are included in the process of diffusion through communication channels.  Opinion leadership (Rogers, 1983) is the degree to which an individual is able to influence other individuals' attitudes or overt behavior informally in a desired way with relative frequency.  Change agents are those individuals who have the ability to influence opinion leaders into adopting or rejecting an ideology deemed desirable.  "Gatekeeping is the communication behavior of an individual or individuals who withhold or reshape information that they control as it flows into their system" (p. 354).  
     The diffusion theory is important to a public affairs plan because it provides insight on how information can be effectively communicated and accepted by the target audience. The essence of the diffusion process is the information exchange, when an individual communicates a new idea to one or several others.  At its most elementary form, the process involves: (1) an innovation, (2) an individual or other unit of adoption that has knowledge of or experience with using the innovation, (3) another individual or other unit that does not yet have knowledge of the innovation, and (4) a communication channel connecting the two units.  A communication channel is the means by which messages get from one individual to another (Infante et al., 1997). 
     For this project the independent variable of poor cross service crisis management plans is operationalized on five levels:  1) Existing joint plans for crisis situations: The amount and consistency of plans among the services and their level of compatibility.  The Air Force, for example, dedicates one paragraph in its crisis management regulation to joint operations missing most of the subjects discussed in this project (AFI 35-102, 1994).  By manipulating service plans a larger joint model may be developed.  2) Application of command structure during initial stages of a crisis:  The level of detail with which the crisis chain of command is spelled out in advance.  When the crisis occurs who becomes the one ultimately responsible?  Knowing what the command chain is prior to a crisis makes accomplishing public affairs functions easier.  3)  Acculturation on an interpersonal level among public affairs professionals from different services: Acculturation is represented by level with which the PA’s know the general culture of the other service. An ability to work together in a crisis hinges on how well key players can communicate internally before communicating command messages externally.  4)  Sensitivity to the concerns and culture of the host nation:  PA’s have to develop a working knowledge or have quick access to the cultural dynamics of the hosts or other foreign nations involved in the crisis.  5)  Public affairs involvement in operational planning: It is very important to maintain a high level to which PA’s are allowed to participate in operational planning and how well they are informed about missions.  Responding well to crisis depends, in large part, on how well the PA understands the nature and scope of the mission and the subsequent problem.  Knowing how and why operations are planned makes information dissemination easier and more clear.  The levels discussed above are examined using current literature available from military and academic sources and by using as a case study details of the multi-service crisis involving the EA-6B disaster in Italy. 
     The success of the dependent variable is measured on three levels, each constituting different forms of message success.  The first variant is the speed with which command messages are delivered following a crisis.  According to ten Berge (1990) the first 24 hours of a crisis are decisive because external perceptions are quickly established.  Ten Berge (1989) says the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill is an example where lack of speed cost an organization its good reputation.  On March 24, 1989,  the tanker  hit a submerged reef  and spilled 240,000 barrels of oil into the waters of Prince William Sound, Alaska.  The media quickly picked up the fact that this was the worst oil spill in the North American hemisphere and that an intoxicated skipper and inept crew were the immediate cause of the accident.  Exxon, however, dragged its feet. Although the response was quick considering travel time, it took 17 hours for the president of Exxon Shipping to arrive in Alaska.  The final damage assessment showed the pollution of 1,500 miles of shoreline and dead wildlife, including half a million birds. The battle to save the reputation was lost in the beginning because Exxon did not take charge and provide a quick response to the press. 
     The clarity of the message is the second variant used to measure success in this project.  Lerbinger (1997) notes that many crisis plans stress the need for one central spokesperson to communicate with the press and public.  It is also stressed that if management uses more than one person the message should always be the same.  The decision between the two should be made based on the severity of the crisis, but a media-savvy, high-level officer or corporate head is ideal. 
     The ease with which a message is formulated and approved in an organization is the third measurement of success.  According to Ten Berge (1990) the Tylenol product tampering case in 1982 is considered to be the most exemplary case ever known in the history of crisis communication management.  Tylenol manufacturer Johnson & Johnson made sure the public’s safety was their highest priority, followed by an effort to save the product.  During the course of this crisis, there appeared to be no alternative but to provide truthful and factual information as quickly as possible.  By taking charge and assuming responsibility the company was able to handle the media in an effective manner.  Prior to the poisonings, Johnson & Johnson did not actively seek press coverage.  However, during this crisis the company recognized the benefits of open communication and used the opportunity to warn the public while at the same time getting out key messages.  The success that came of this crisis was due in large part to the company credo of corporate responsibility and to open, clear, and unfettered internal communication.